This Mill Shapes Writers

IMG_1281By Will Stahl

When Steve Polansky moved his family from Minneapolis to Appleton, he knew almost no one. A writer and former university writing teacher, originally from New York, he had taught at The Loft, a huge organization with its own building, supporting the literary community in the Twin Cities with classes and workshops.

Wanting to meet people who shared his literary interests and seeing no evident writing community in the Fox Cities, he decided to start his own based on The Loft model. He wanted people that he could “hang around with” and make friends. So The Mill began.

In 2011 Polansky held the first class in the basement of a private school with 11 participants. Before long he knew he needed help with the project and he contacted Ellen Kort and Laura Mills, the only people he knew of in the local literary scene. Neither was willing to teach, but they both recommended Karla Huston, a published poet and former high school writing teacher. (Full disclosure: I have participated in Steve Polansky’s writing classes and shared office space with Karla Huston for a number of years).

Polansky contacted Huston, who was a bit skeptical at first, but she agreed to teach a class on writing poetry. The Atlas Coffee Mill offered space, and provided a name, and The Mill was up and running.

I met with Polansky and Huston to find out what they got from their work at The Mill, how it was currently doing, and what they thought could be its future. They invited Janet Wellner-Fais, a visual artist who has been a participant in Huston’s poetry class.

Huston said, “It is hard to find a writing community and meet people. Writers mostly work alone.” Polansky said he had always taught at the university level and that he “found adults much more interesting and much more open.”

The classes’ format is that the elements of the writing form are discussed, examples are read, and students produce their own work, which is discussed in front of them by the group.

“It is an act of courage to get up in front of other adults,” Huston said. “Adults are kind and generous to each other, but they are also astute readers.”

Polansky spoke of his surprise at how many people in the area were writing and how good they were. He “watched all these marginal writers come out of the shadows. It meant so much to be recognized.”

Ms. Wellner-Fais said she had always been “one of these people who wrote little poems.”

For most of her life she had worked as a visual artist, painting and drawing, also she’d done some music, acting and set design, but she felt she’d reached a stage where she wasn’t doing much, she was “lying fallow.” After several years she realized it was more than that, she was “in a slough of despond.” Seeing something about The Mill, she decided to try Huston’s poetry class. Poetry would be “a way to paint in words.”

“We end up with a lot of different people,” Huston said. “I expected people from the poetry community, but all kinds of people come.”

“I sometimes feel like Charlie Rose,” Polansky said. “I just bring interesting people around a table and let them talk.”

The classes, he told me, have “an integral benefit for many people, a singular opportunity to get out, meet people and form friendships. By the eighth or ninth session, they have become not only friends but have an esprit de corps and want to take future classes with these same people.”

Wellner-Fais added that an artist, pianist or writer, “they are all solitary. Getting together with other people around something, that really inspires me. It’s not just standing around drinking and jabbering.”

The Mill has an expanded schedule of classes for this fall, bringing in a new teacher. (See below) When I asked Huston and Polansky where they thought the project was going, the told me that wherever it’s going, it’s going slowly. They don’t want to expand too fast. “The pie-in-the-sky dream is our own building,” Huston said, but she didn’t see that happening soon. “Growing the number of class offerings may be key to expanding enrollment,” Polansky said. They agree classes must be kept small to be effective. Poetry classes, for example, will be limited to eight.

For some time The Mill has been trying to develop a program of one-a-month Saturday events, bringing in established writers to do a workshop around a specific skill or subject.

The first, on Saturday, September 13, will bring in novelist Abby Frucht to present “The Tarot of Character,” a workshop on using tarot cards to create characters in fiction and non-fiction.

One new development is that by early September, The Mill will be offering yearly memberships. For $35 members will get 10% off class fees, 10% off Saturday events, a 10% discount at Lyon’s Fine Books in Neenah, and a gift from Anderson Pens.

If you are writing or trying to write, nothing will help more than feedback from people trying to do the same thing. You will find them insightful and supportive, and The Mill teachers will help you see the positive in whatever you are doing.

The Mill teachers and participants would like to express their thanks and appreciation for the hospitality and friendship of the Atlas Coffee Mill, 425 N. Water Street, Appleton.

The Mill fall schedule. For details about the class content, contact the instructor.


Wearing the Mask – with Karla Huston, Monday, 7-9 PM, Sept. 15-Nov. 3,

8 weeks, $200. Class size limited to 8.

Poetry Workshop – with Bruce Dethlefsen, Wednesday, 7-9 PM, Sept. 17-Nov. 5

8 weeks, $200. Class size limited to 8.


Fundamentals of Fiction  – with Steve Polansky, Wednesday, 7-9 PM, Sept 17-Nov. 19

10 weeks, $250. Contact

English Prose Style – with Steve Polansky, Monday, 7-9 PM, Sept. 15-Nov 17

10 weeks, $250. Contact

Writing Authentically – with Nikki Kallio, Wednesday, 7-9 PM, Sept. 24-Nov. 12

8 weeks, $200. Contact After Sept. 1, contact


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